Kristy Wilkinson knew she had a greater chance of developing breast cancer because her mother had the disease at the age of 38, so Wilkinson performed routine self-checks and was diligent about getting annual mammograms.
At Wilkinson’s appointment last January, though, doctors discovered she, too, had breast cancer. It was detected early, and she had a double mastectomy in March — but it was then doctors discovered cancer in her lymph nodes. This meant she had to have chemotherapy and radiation.
The 44-year-old Westbrooke Elementary School teacher said she was mentally prepared for the surgery but it was difficult to accept she had to endure the additional treatments. To make matters worse, she developed an infection two weeks after the surgery and spent a week in the hospital.
Neighbors and friends helped out with her 11- and 14-year-old daughters, Siena and Sydney, and when Wilkinson returned home, people brought her family meals and gave them Uber Eats gift cards.
“It has made us closer, and we’ve talked about what’s important in life,” Wilkinson said of her daughters. “Sometimes the house isn’t clean and the dishes pile up and the clothes don’t get washed, but that’s OK. The girls have been super helpful around the house and have learned to cook meals, but most of the time I do what I can because I want them to have a life.”
Wilkinson started chemotherapy in May, and it lasted five months — and it took a lot out of her, she said. It also took her hair and a great deal of energy.
In the fall, her principal, Vidal Reyes, worked with her and her schedule, allowing her to take Thursdays off for her chemo treatments.
“We planned this out, me and my doctors, because I still needed to work,” Wilkinson said. “So I took off the day I had chemo — Thursday. I worked Friday. Saturday and Sunday I was sick and tired, and by Monday I was mostly OK. I would go back to school on Monday. Tuesdays were OK, Wednesdays I felt great, and Thursdays I started over. It was rough, very rough.”
Radiation began in October, and many afternoons she drove straight from work to Clermont for the therapies. This was an extremely difficult season too.
“The last 10 to 12 treatments I was burned, and I would be burned from my right breast to all the way over under my armpit on the side of my body,” she said. “And a little on my back where the radiation beams go out. I blistered, I was red, I couldn’t wear a bra for the last weeks and a week after that. I would have to turn clothes inside out so the seams didn’t bother me.”
Her final radiation treatment was Dec. 7.
‘I TOLD THEM … I’M NOT GOING TO DIE’
In the fall, Wilkinson eventually told her second-graders she had cancer, and they had many questions, she said. She had been wearing a wig, but it was uncomfortable and she preferred covering her head with a scarf.
“I told the kids in my class that I don’t have any hair,” she said. “I showed them pictures on my phone of what I looked like with my hair. It was very positive. I told them I was doing good, that I’m not going to die.
“Every now and then they can get off on a tangent and talk about my hair and if it will come back and what it will look like. … They are really cute. I decided right after Christmas I was done wearing the wigs. So I started to wear a scarf when I went back to school. They asked, ‘Are you embarrassed to wear the scarf?’ It’s so cute to hear their innocent questions. They do ask to see it, and I said I’m just not ready to do that yet. Just give me some time.
“I figure eventually I will show my kids in my class how my hair is coming back,” Wilkinson said. “I had nice long curly hair, and it’s gone.”
At the end of the last school year, Westbrooke held a fundraiser for Wilkinson. Students were given a sock and told to take it home and decorate it and fill it with loose change.
“We raised just over $2,000,” she said. “It was amazing to see all that outpouring of love and encouragement and support and see all these socks.”
Wilkinson said she is considered in remission and the active part of her treatment is finished. But she still has to take medicine and receive injections to stave off the cancer cells. One of the pills is a chemo pill she must take for two years.
“I have to wear gloves to take it,” she said. “It’s so toxic, but I still have to swallow it.”
She hopes to have reconstructive surgery this summer.
“I have a lot of toxic stuff going through my body, but I’m so happy I’m living,” Wilkinson said. “I didn’t go through chemo and radiation just to lay around and not do anything with my life. I want to be here for my kids and make sure I’m here for (the students) — so I’m going to make sure I do everything my doctors advise me to do.”
‘IF YOU HAVE FRIENDS, YOU’LL NEVER BE POOR AGAIN’
Wilkinson is a single mother living on a teacher’s income, and it’s a struggle, she said. One chemotherapy treatment costs $64,000.
“At least that is what they are charging my insurance company, so thank God for insurance,” she said.
Last year’s out-of-pocket expenses were $5,500, which Wilkinson had to put on her credit card. This year, that amount increased to $6,500, and it too is being paid with her credit card.
Each doctor visit is another copayment. Each prescription refill is another copayment. Her medical insurance has covered the majority of the expenses, but the copayments for her cancer treatments have put her deep into debt.
“Not only am I paying that, I have to eat, I have to feed my kids, and they have expenses with clothes and shoes and random things that come up,” Wilkinson said. “And every now and then I like to take them to a restaurant to treat them. You have to do that.”
She has good friends and a boyfriend who buy her groceries and clothing such as mastectomy shirts.
“We’re struggling but we’re not, because … we have so many friends and family members who are willing to give us so much now,” she said. “It actually reminds me of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ … And they say if you have friends, you’ll never be poor again. And it makes me think, I have friends, so I am not poor.”
Co-workers at Westbrooke also have chipped in money and gift cards, so that has been helpful. The GoFundMe also has raised about $3,300 so far.
“Let's help this woman who is there for everyone around her begin this new chapter of her life with freedom — freedom from cancer and the financial debt it created,” said her friend, Elizabeth Heine, who started the GoFundMe page.